By Asha Kaushal
In the centre of Lalish, Iraq, home to the holiest temple in the Yazidi faith, is a small pool of water shaded by mulberry trees. This is the holy spring, where new-borns are brought for baptism. For generations this ritual has remained unchanged. However, in 2015 a baptism of a wholly new kind occurred: one to welcome Yazidi women and girls who had escaped sexual enslavement by ISIS back into the community.
On 2 August 2014, ISIS fighters began their genocidal campaign against the Yazidis and stormed Sinjar in Iraq, abducting thousands of Yazidi men, women and children. Indeed, the date of 3 August 2014 would become a dividing line, demarcating when one life ended, and – for those who survived – when another, infinitely more cruel existence began. Whilst Yazidi men were generally either enslaved for forced labour or publicly executed, women and girls, some as young as nine, were separated from their families and sold in online auctions or in slave markets, given as ‘spoils of war’ to ISIS fighters, or sexually exploited in ‘rest houses’. Many women and girls have also been subjected to torture, sexual enslavement and forced conversions to Islam, all justified according to ISIS’s ‘theology of rape’, which determines that because the Yazidis are polytheists, their enslavement is both permissible and virtuous.
The foregoing tactics have all been strategically utilised by ISIS to deliberately attack the integrity of the Yazidis’ family unit and community cohesion. Since women are viewed as symbolising the perpetuity of the group, as mothers and as cultural representatives, perpetrators target women as a conscious aspect of their genocidal process. For the ISIS jihadists then, slavery and the attendant sexual violence are intended to shatter non-Muslim societies. As Nadia Murad, UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Tracking, writes: ‘the Islamists knew how devastating that was for an unmarried Yazidi woman. Our worst fears—those of our community and our clergy, so they will not be resumed—have been shamelessly exploited’. By using sexual violence and forced marriage as weapons of war, ISIS have exploited the conservative traditions of Yazidism to ensure that Yazidi women and girls would be unable to return to their communities, as it is forbidden to marry to a non-Yazidi. To lose their virginity is to lose their honour as a Yazidi, and by extension their sense of belonging to their community.
It is the conservative nature of Yazidism that makes the decision to reintegrate any female Yazidi that has been raped or sexually assaulted by ISIS back into the faith so unprecedented. On 6 September 2015, Baba Sheikh, a Yazidi religious leader, issued a statement welcoming escaped women back into the community. He stated: ‘these survivors remain pure Yazidis because they were subjected to a matter outside their control.…We therefore call on everyone to co-operate with and support these victims so that they may again live their normal lives and integrate into society’. Being rebaptised in Lalish has been a central measure in facilitating this reintegration. For example, Leila, a 20-year-old Yazidi woman who has made several trips to Lalish since escaping ISIS said ‘I was just so happy, because I had been hurt. I wanted to be clean again’. Similarly, Nour affirmed ‘in Lalish, we were freed’.
While this religious change has garnered little attention beyond the Yazidi community, inside it has been critical to many survivors’ efforts to heal. Indeed, it has protected many Yazidi women and girls from experiencing enduring stigma and shame, and encouraged their family to seek medical and psychosocial support for them. Communal visits to Lalish have also been part of the active effort to break down feelings of fear and isolation. As Khider Domle – who played a key role in creating the doctrinal change – says, ‘we began asking why our religious traditions gave extremists the very power they most craved: the ability permanently to exclude believers from their faith and family’.
However, the road to recovering from the trauma inflicted by ISIS is long and filled with obstacles. As well as psychosocial support and medical care, many survivors also require material assistance such as long-term rehabilitation, financial assistance and livelihood schemes to help them live independently. Many also still hold deep-seated fears about being ostracised by their community and about their ability to marry or have children in the future. Nonetheless, welcoming female Yazidi survivors back into the community has been a crucial first step to aid healing, though we must not stop here. It now falls upon the international community at large to ensure that those guilty of committing acts of genocide against the Yazidis are held accountable. This is how we will deliver justice to the Yazidi community and ensure their long-term healing.
Asha is a third year War Studies student with an interest in human rights and Middle Eastern security.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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